Q& A: Peter Bennet

“Technology is more of the sideline,” he said. “My interest in government is primary. What keeps me going during the day is that in this position I support a number of systems that either provide services directly to citizens or that keep the government running in the background.”

Bennett, who was promoted to his current position in 1995, recently spoke with Assistant Editor Blair McQuillan about the city’s major IT initiative, the challenges municipal governments face in delivering services and Winnipeg’s unique budget situation. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. How did you become Winnipeg’s manager of information systems?

A. I started off with the city as a planner, but I’ve always had a strong interest in computers. When I was hired by the city I was doing population projections, housing forecasts and survey analysis, and using a computer as a tool to help me do that. That role evolved into me becoming the main developer of computer systems for the planning department, which back then was a combination of PC and mainframe.

One of my sideline interests was computer mapping, so I took a course in computer mapping and GIS (Geographic Information Systems). When the city started into its own GIS project and they needed someone who knew about GIS, I got transferred into the computer department and then worked my way into a position where I headed up the city’s GIS project. I did that until I was promoted into my current position in 1995.

Q.What major initiative is your department currently working on?

A. Right now a large number of my staff have been assigned to work on our new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system for the city. The first implementation went live on April 14. In the first phase we’re replacing our financial system and adding in a new procurement piece. For the first time we’re going to be doing purchasing online. There will be no more paper forms. There’s going to be a workflow aspect to it where approvals will be done online as well. . . .

There’s another release in June, which is the payroll, and a release in March, which is more HR function and budgeting as well as a data warehouse piece and reporting.

Q.Why is the city undertaking such a project?

A. There are a number of reasons. The first is that the systems we were using were getting a little long in the tooth. They were both mainframe systems. They were great on the operational aspect, but very poor on the reporting side.

We’ve also run into the issue of staff – as our workforce ages, the people coming out of university don’t have any mainframe skills. So we saw the writing on the wall that said, “Within five years’ time, we’re not going to be able to find anyone to maintain these systems as our staff moves on to retirement or other jobs.”

Q.What is the most critical challenge that your department currently faces?

A. One of our biggest challenges is our shortage of resources. We don’t have a shortage of work to do, but we do have a shortage of either money or staff to do the work. Our organization has been under budget constraints for a number of years. In fact, the City of Winnipeg – I think for the last three years – has had a property tax decrease. So, we’ve been cutting back.

Our organization has cut about 2,000 people from our workforce citywide. I think a lot of that has been enabled by technology. The jobs have been disappearing through attrition, and the fact that we’ve had computer systems in place and are improving them has allowed us to keep our heads above water. Though we are treading water.

I don’t know if too many cities are in a decreasing mode as far as their property tax situation. That translates into our budgets – not only for IT but for every department. If we have an overall tax decrease of two per cent that typically translates back into a departmental decrease of two per cent. So our budgets have been decreasing. We’ve had to reduce positions through attrition or find alternate sources of revenue.

Q. In what areas have you been able to gain revenue?

A. One way that we’ve been trying to do that is by charging departments for some of the services we offer. For example, let’s use network services. We have a wide area network in the city where all of the departments are connected to our own internal network. If a department needs to connect a computer from their network on to our wide area network, we charge them for that. We’re also looking at implementing charges for e-mail as well.

These are real costs and our problem is if we’re under the same budget constraints as everyone else, we can’t continue to absorb these costs.

Q.What challenges do municipal governments face in regard to IT that federal and provincial governments don’t?

A. I’m probably generalizing here, but as a rule, we have fewer IT dollars and staff compared to the size and diversity of the organization that we’re trying to support. Municipalities provide a variety of services to the public that are quite unique, and it’s not easy to automate our diverse business needs with only a few general systems. As a result, we have quite a few specialized systems to manage our environment.

We deal with everything from transit routes to water systems to police, and every one of them has some unique aspect to them, so it is very difficult to find one system out there that meets multiple needs. We end up with multiple systems where there’s probably some overlap, but the systems are bought based on their unique aspects more than on their common aspects.

Another challenge we have as a group is that it is very difficult to speak with one voice as municipalities, or even to look at applying the same technology solution to all of us. There has certainly been a lot of interest at the federal level and at the provincial level to try to integrate services across all three levels of government. However, when you get down to the municipal level, we all have our own unique challenges either within our jurisdiction or with the relations we have with the provincial governments.

Q. What has been your greatest success since taking on your current role?

A. My achievements are due in part to the staff I have working for me and the work that they do. But one of the things I’ve been involved in is the development of an IT strategic plan for the organization. We had to involve quite a few players and we came up with what I think was a succinct document which says, “This is what we’re all about and where we’re heading.” I probably like it so much because it’s the planner in me coming back to the surface.